1on1: Devs Steph Staub and Briana West on coding and career trajectories - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Apr. 2, 2019 5:11 pm

1on1: Devs Steph Staub and Briana West on coding and career trajectories

The senior software engineer and software developer interview each other about their stacks, mentorship, technical challenges and more.

Steph Staub (L) and Briana West.

(Courtesy photos; image by Julie Zeglen)

Welcome to 1on1.

At Technical.ly, we have a mission to write not only about, but for technologists in PhiladelphiaBaltimoreD.C. and Delaware. In this new series, two technologists — developers, project managers, CTOs — interview each other about the programming languages they use, professional development, team workflows, technical challenges and more. Technical.ly is just the platform; the interviewees are also the interviewers here. (Yes, Interview magazine was an inspiration.)

First up are Philly devs Stephanie Staub and Briana West, who chatted via conference call on Wednesday, Feb. 6. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

###

Stephanie Staub: My name’s Steph Staub. I currently work at WebLinc, and we have a ecommerce platform Workarea. It’s built using Ruby on Rails on top of Elasticsearch and MongoDB, which is pretty interesting, ’cause I came from a MySQL background.

I went to school for computer science at the University of Maryland. I worked for Lockheed Martin in the D.C. area for about five years or so. Then when my husband and I moved to Australia I had to find a new job, and I was really interested in getting into more of the web development side, a little more instant gratification there. So I’m in transition, and then when we moved back to the U.S. I ended up at WebLinc. I have an 18-month-old son.

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I also just wanted to press us that I do have two dogs here with me. So there’s about a 50 percent chance they might bark at some point, and I apologize. [Barking in background] Oh, there we go!

Briana West: Briana here. I am a software developer for Power Home Remodeling. In terms of my background and how I got into tech, it’s a nontraditional path. I studied health science in undergrad, and worked at a healthcare-adjacent nonprofit after graduating, but I had done some work in Excel to support my day-to-day activities and wound up really liking it. So, I decided to apply to Launch Academy, an 18-week bootcamp with Ruby on Rails, UTRN, also some HTML, some JavaScript, and CSS.

At Power Home Remodeling, our stack is Ruby on Rails with MySQL database underneath, but we also have a iOS version of our application, so we have teams that work on an iOS stack. We have an Android version of the application as well. Then we also have a chat app that we call Connect, which is basically how a lot of everyone communicates with one another throughout the day within the company.

Language communities: ‘It lowers the bar of entry for people who are looking to learn’

Briana West: Steph, since you have a computer science background, and if you’ve had exposure to a number of different languages throughout your career, what drew you to Ruby, and Ruby on Rails? Then, how do you feel like it compares to some of the other languages that you’ve gotten a chance to work in?

Stephanie Staub: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think I remember in college actually, in a database class, we used Ruby on Rails for a project, and I remember at the time it was just so easy to use and understand for me. Then when I graduated I did more Ada, which is not commonly used, it’s mostly in the government contracting area. There’s not a lot of resources as well, so you pretty much have the Ada reference manual, and the few people that you work with that actually have used it.

"The thing about Ruby that draws me to it is that I love that it's easy for people to pick up and understand."
Steph Staub

So I think the thing about Ruby that draws me to it is that I love that it’s easy for people to pick up and understand. The whole goal is to be readable, and to just be able to read it and understand what’s happening. I love that it kind of lowers the bar of entry for people who are looking to learn, and I just love the Ruby community. I think everywhere I’ve been there’s a huge community, and just the availability of finding information and just learning on your own, not relying on cryptic manuals and just people with travel knowledge for answers — I think that’s one of the big benefits of it.

Was Ruby on Rails the first language that you learned with?

Briana West: It was, actually. It was the first language that I sat down and said, “OK, this is the language that I’m gonna learn and focus all of my attention on.” I think when I first started looking at online tutorials and different coding challenges one of the more popular options was Java. So in terms of approachability, that isn’t the kind of language, I think, for a beginner.

But I absolutely agree, I think mainly the reason that I went into Ruby on Rails was because a lot of the bootcamp models that I was looking at offered that stack. I heard similar experience to yours where people would say, “Oh, Ruby on Rails is really approachable. There’s a great community. The resources for learning are really solid.” So I felt comfortable with that, knowing that those things would be available to the language. I was kind of excited to just jump in and be able to get started.

Mentorship: ‘I’m just always looking out for someone who maybe needs a little more guidance’

Briana West: Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, I’m a little bit curious about what your experience with mentorship has been like. Is that something that you feel like you’ve been able to turn to your peers in different companies that you’ve worked for, or do you have a community of people that you go to outside of work, or is it a combination of things? When you find yourself either looking for guidance, or looking to provide guidance if you’re encountering someone who’s newer to the field, how have you gotten experiences with either side of that mentorship relationship?

Stephanie Staub: So, when I worked for Lockheed Martin, right, out of college, they had a more formal mentoring program where they had a system where you registered, and you would link to someone as your mentor. So they encouraged you to just find anyone. From the beginning I started with a mentor who was very smart, but because I was right out of school he kind of focused more on life skills and just general career advice. It was later, a few years later, that I became closer with another architect who worked there, and he was more encouraging on the technical side.

Then later on, having mentors, it usually is pretty organic. Usually someone that I have a good rapport with whenever I start at a company, now I go to them with the questions, and over time it’s informal, but they’re just my go-to. Most of the companies I’ve worked at are pretty encouraging, I’m just asking everyone questions. I don’t necessarily have a go-to specifically for all my technical questions.

"Outside of work I have a community of women that I meet with once a month where share our experience and what we're working on lately. It's kind of a nice support network to have that isn't necessarily technical-focused."
Briana West

Then in terms of myself mentoring people, again, where I work currently, it doesn’t necessarily have a formalized mentoring program, but I do just try to help people whenever they ask me questions, and I try to kind of explain, not just give them the answer, but explain why. I’m just always looking out for someone who maybe needs a little more guidance, or just support, just encouraging them to try things and do it themselves, trying to instill confidence but from then that I feel super important.

What about yourself? You guys have a formal mentoring program?

Briana West: We currently have a more formal approach to mentorship. We recently started a code academy within the company. The coaches call it Power Coding Academy where we take six apprentices from different department in the company who have either shown an interest, or show more of an inclination to potentially be interested in tech. They go through the process of six months of doing QA-focused work, as well as learning technical skills. When they come out of it, you’re assigned a mentor on the team, and that’s basically someone that you go to for general advice and support, but in terms of technical support we all support one another as a team.

In terms of receiving mentorship, I feel like I have a similar situation where it’s less formal and it’s more like someone who I’ve worked with closely and really appreciate their perspective on technical things. I’ll go to ask them questions, or if I know someone that’s had a lot of experience with something I’d feel comfortable just asking them what their thoughts are.

Then outside of work I have a community of women that I meet with once a month where we kind of just share our experience and what we’re working on lately. It’s kind of a nice support network to have that isn’t necessarily super technical-focused. We do technical work occasionally, but it’s nice to just convene with one another and discuss where we are in our careers.

Career changes: ‘I definitely had a misconception about what the day-to-day would be like’

Stephanie Staub: Do you feel that you having entered tech “later,” quote/unquote, did you build that community from people that maybe you were in a bootcamp with, or did you just seek it out because you felt newer to tech and you were just looking for the support?

Briana West: Initially I was seeking it out, but the way that we came together was really organic. I had joined a few Slack communities when I graduated from bootcamp, and one of the channels in one of the groups that I was in, I remember posting a question about how people were dealing with their hair and the humidity. People were like, “Oh, I didn’t know you lived in the area. I meet up with so-and-so once a month to talk about technical stuff, you should come.”

"When you get into the real world, you don't win a prize for just figuring it out on your own."
Steph Staub

From there, one by one, the group just started growing. By word of mouth we all just grew as a group by just kind of putting feelers out there, asking questions, taking peoples’ perspectives on how things were. Then when I learned that there were people in that Slack community who lived near me, we just decided to start meeting up.

Stephanie Staub: That’s awesome. I think that’s a pretty important thing, and it’s something that it’s hard to find sometimes. I went to college and had some friends in my classes, so it was kind of like a built-in community, whereas if you were entering to form another sector, I could see how that would be so useful. I’m glad you were able to find that.

I’m curious what’s one thing that you, when you started working and doing development on a job, what’s something that maybe surprised you, something you didn’t think was part of being a developer, or something that you thought would be part of being a developer, but wasn’t really?

Briana West: I think I definitely had a misconception about what the day-to-day would be like in terms of the level of teamwork involved. I think I had this incorrect assumption that I had to sit down and figure it out by myself, I should know the answer, and I should be able to figure it out, but shortly after starting here and interacting with some of my coworkers it was very, “No, this is a team sport.” If you want guidance on something, or if you have a question, you’re totally encouraged to just go ask questions, and pairing is something that was really valuable and demystifying, or deconstructing that assumption.

Stephanie Staub: I think I would actually say I had a very similar realization, because in school you actually weren’t allowed to work with other people on assignments unless it was specific for the project. They discouraged you from working together. I always found that really interesting, ’cause it’s so different from when you get into the real world, because you don’t win a prize necessarily for just figuring it out on your own, and taking longer to do that than if you just talked to someone and learned from them.

Pairing: ‘We’re just chugging along and figuring it out together’

Stephanie Staub: Did you do a lot of pairing before you started working? In the bootcamp did they do pairing, or was that a new thing to you?

Briana West: Yeah. In bootcamp it wasn’t necessarily a formal requirement, but it was encouraged to say like, “OK, here’s your assignment for the day. Feel free to link up with your teammates if you want to and pair on it, or pair on a portion of it. If you want to sit alone and do it you can, but you’re encouraged to work through it with someone else.”

"This whole process, you're learning, and you're never gonna stop, so pairing just comes with it."
Briana West

What I think my perspective on it was that like, “OK. I’m in a bootcamp. This is thing is happening in a vacuum. I am allowed and encouraged to pair because I’m learning,” but I think the big realization I had when I started working at Power was that this whole process, you’re learning, and you’re never gonna stop, so pairing just comes with it.

Stephanie Staub: Yeah, definitely. I just think back the first time I paired. It was when I worked for a company called Envato in Australia, and it was actually my first gig where I was using Ruby on Rails in a job. I remember being so intimidated by pairing because it almost felt like I was being interviewed or something, and I remember being so self-conscious about like, “Oh, they’re gonna think I’m so bad at this. Am I too slow for them?” But then over the years I just learned to love it.

Briana West: I can certainly relate with being self-conscious about how I participated and what the other person felt like my contributions were, but I think after doing it a couple times I was able to ease into it and say, “OK. We’re just chugging along and figuring it out together. There’s no pressure.”

Pressure to (over)perform: ‘There’s an expectation that you continue to do it in your free time’

Stephanie Staub: How much pressure do you feel either from work or just from the community in expectations from the tech community at large? How much pressure do you feel to keep current on all the new technologies, be coding in your spare time, and working on projects, open source, and all that? And how much do you actually get a chance to do those things?

Briana West: I love that question. I think when I was first getting into tech that was something that I was definitely nervous about, especially as soon as I graduated bootcamp. I was like, “OK, I gotta keep working on my bootcamp project. I have to start something else. I should look around and see what other languages I should look at. I should rewrite my project in a different language.”

I felt a lot of pressure to just be a 110 percent engaged in all the things at all times, but that’s a really quick way to burn yourself out, and I don’t know that I necessarily allowed it to get to that point, but I think what needed to happen was I needed to take a step back and say like, “Hey, you do this all day long,” and it isn’t necessarily about having written a ton of different things in a ton of different languages, and having touched the latest thing that came out all the time, but more so focus on the fundamentals.

"If you want to build a side project, even if it's a cool idea, if you're just not feeling the urge to do it, it feels like more work, and it can create more stress."
Steph Staub

I feel like this is one of the few careers where you do the thing all day, and then there’s an expectation that you continue to do it in your free time. I think that that’s great if it’s coming from a genuine sense of curiosity and wanting to explore, but I also don’t know that anyone should feel pressured or that they have to do it, and if they aren’t doing it all the time, then they somehow care less about the field that they’re in.

Stephanie Staub: Yeah. I totally agree. I definitely feel the pressure, because that is a thing that you get asked if you ever interview. A couple years ago when I was interviewing before I started at WebLinc I remember being asked that, and they asked for your GitHub profile. You just feel those pressures to present yourself as just an obsessive programmer, but I have kind of let that go.

Now that I have a child of my own, my time is even less outside of work. I just try to focus on the things that I really feel like will make an impact for me. So maybe that’s just reading a self-improvement book whether it’s about coding, or just about leadership skills or something. Maybe I’ll listen to a technical book, or read one, and then I’ll take a little break and read some non-fiction, or fiction books.

I try not to get obsessive about it, ’cause like you said, you do get burned out, and honestly it’s not fun if it’s not something that you really want to do. If you want to build a side project, even if it’s a cool idea, if you’re just not feeling the urge to do it, it feels like more work, and it can create more stress.

What do you see next for your career? Become ‘more truly full stack’

Stephanie Staub: I’m just always trying to learn more, and kind of hone my craft. In the future I just want to continue mentoring, because that’s something that I enjoy, and kind of encouraging other people to keep learning. Then to just continue to learn. I know personally one of my weaknesses of the moment is front-end related things. I can dive in and do JavaScript, and CSS and that, but getting a deeper understanding of that is kind of my short-term goal at the moment.

Then long-term I can be really more truly full stack. That’s kind of my short-term, five-year plan at the moment.

Briana West: My plan is to continuing to put myself in challenging situations. I think as I’ve come through my first two years at Power, I’ve noticed that the best way to learn something is to be in a situation where you have to figure it out — so allowing my curiosity to guide the things that I learn and the things that I tend to focus on I think it’s something that I want to be more diligent about in the future.

But in terms of my career in long-term I think I just want to be able to look back and say that I tried to expose myself to as much as possible. I’m just really excited to be able to get my hands dirty.

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